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News Media Must Take A Moral Stand

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News Media Must Take A Moral Stand

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Trump TV, Media, Journalism

“Five minutes for Hitler, five minutes for the Jews.”

That, according to legend — and a Facebook page for alumni of The Miami Herald – was the routine response of an eighties-era editor whenever some hapless reporter was working overly hard to bring “balance” to a story where none should exist, where the moral high ground was clearly held by side or the other. I don’t know who the editor was, but that riposte brims with a wisdom sorely lacking in modern news media, obsessed as they are with the fallacy of journalism without judgment.

Take as Exhibit A Gerard Baker, editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal. In a Sunday interview with Chuck Todd of “Meet The Press,” he explained why his paper declines to label Donald Trump’s manifold falsehoods as lies.

“‘Lie,’” he said, “implies much more than just saying something that’s false. It implies a deliberate intent to mislead.” It is better, he argued, to report a given Trump claim, juxtapose it with the facts and let the audience make up its own mind. Otherwise, he said, “you run the risk that you look like you are…not being objective.”

Besides, he added, Hillary Clinton also spoke some untruths, but media were not so quick to label her a liar.

Of course, the plain fact is that Trump is a liar – and a fantastically prodigious one at that. Baker’s preferred method of handling this would be like reporting on each individual drop of water that falls, but never mentioning the storm.

And likening Trump’s untruths to Clinton’s is like likening Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s scoring to Zan Tabak’s. Abdul-Jabbar is the leading scorer in NBA history. You’ve probably never heard of Tabak, though he also played in the NBA and, once in awhile, scored a basket.

Baker’s is a mindset that has become all too common. With the obvious exception of certain partisan news outlets, some reporters, fearful of being tagged for “bias” on contentious issues, seek to safeguard themselves by ritually quoting a source from Side A and another from Side B while avoiding even painfully obvious conclusions. They call this “fair and balanced.” It’s actually gutless and dumb.

Five minutes for Hitler, five minutes for the Jews.

And then what? Five minutes for ISIS, five minutes for Charlie Hebdo?

Yes, these are outlandish examples. They are also logical extrapolations.

The plain fact is, journalism without judgment – moral judgment – cannot exist. If you doubt it, try a thought experiment. You’re a news manager on a day when the mayor is cutting the ribbon on a new hospital and there’s been a mass shooting at the mall. What’s your top story? Is it the shooting? Why? Won’t the hospital directly impact more people? If you go with the shooting, what angle will you take? What resources will you commit? What answers will you demand?

Congratulations, you just committed multiple acts of moral judgment.

Yes, news media must strive to be fair, to hold all sides to rigorous account, to offer a balanced view. But occasionally, there comes a point – subjective, but no less real for that – when pretending to moral equivalence between those sides is a lie, an act of journalistic malpractice.

In these perilous times, with authoritarianism coming to the White House and bizarre untruths infesting our national discourse, that is a sin we can ill afford. No one ever had to remind Cronkite or Murrow of the need to speak the truth when the truth was plain and the moral imperative clear. No one should have to remind this generation of journalists either.

There are two sides to every story, goes the axiom. But you know what?

Sometimes there’s only the one.

IMAGE: U.S. Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump is shown on video monitors as he speaks live to the crowd from New York at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 19, 2016.   REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

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Leonard Pitts Jr.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a nationally syndicated commentator, journalist, and novelist. Pitts' column for the Miami Herald deals with the intersection between race, politics, and culture, and has won him multiple awards including a Pulitzer Prize in 2004.

The highly regarded novel, Freeman (2009), is his most recent book.

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21 Comments

  1. Mama Bear January 4, 2017

    I am pretty tired of these false equivalencies being touted as “objectivity”.

    Reply
    1. PrecipitousDrop January 5, 2017

      Call em like you see em, Mama.
      You’re spot on.

      Reply
  2. Godzilla January 4, 2017

    Piss poor excuse for journalism Mr. Pitts. What a sad story our grandchildren are going to learn about the propaganda crap put out pretending to show reality.

    Reply
    1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth January 4, 2017

      Always love to whine and complain about the writing. It’s a guarantee you’ll be back to read more. Bring extra tissues to dry your weeping eyes and to blow your snotty nose.

      Love ya, Homey!!

      Reply
    2. Budjob January 4, 2017

      Brains aren’t everything,in your case they equate to nothing!

      Reply
    3. Thoughtopsy January 5, 2017

      Cutting rebuttal.

      Oh… you didn’t include any actual points.
      I take it back. You’re an idiot.

      Reply
      1. dbtheonly January 5, 2017

        Actually Godzilla is correct and I hope he’s right about the grandchildren.

        The RWMO has spent billions on creating a closed circle where news, opinion, rumor, and flat out wishful thinking are mashed together and presented as fact. These efforts have succeeded in creating scandals designed to destroy the Clintons. These efforts have a significant portion of the populace believing that President Obama was born in Kenya. These efforts have so muddied the water that many have no idea what Obamacare is.

        What the future will say of this is unclear. But I doubt they’ll be generous to us. If we fail they’ll be looking at the pictures put out by the Department of Truth.

        Reply
    4. PrecipitousDrop January 5, 2017

      Silly Tiny-Japanese-Man-In-A-Lizard-Suit thinks he may reproduce.
      Some day.

      Reply
      1. Mama Bear January 5, 2017

        let’s hope he can’t reproduce, the gene pool is already too polluted.

        Reply
  3. Jim Samaras January 4, 2017

    This writer is part of the problem! You’re either a journalist or you editorialize on a subject. Gerard Baker is right when depicting a lie from hyperbole.

    Reply
    1. Aaron_of_Portsmouth January 4, 2017

      You keep whining about the writers, but like a chicken trying to find its way back to the hen house, you get lost and keeping coming back to read these awful “problem” writers. What do you hope to accomplish in your futile complaints—change the writer’s mind, or convince us to see things your way?
      Either way, you lose because neither will be accomplished. Are you that slow in the uptake that you can’t apprehend the foolishness of your quixotic quest to inflict us with what ails your mind and soul?

      Reply
    2. Thoughtopsy January 5, 2017

      I thought journalists were meant to report the facts?
      Fact: Trump said “I never said that!”
      Fact: There is a video tape of him actually saying that, which is publicly available.
      Fact: This is a lie.

      When you make a statement that is clearly false, then you are intending to deceive. That is the definition of “lie”.

      Cambridge English Dictionary:
      “to say or write something that is not true in order to deceive someone”
      http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/lie

      There is no editorializing required.
      There are, however, some balls required.

      Reply
      1. Mama Bear January 5, 2017

        unfortunately, it is literally not possible to see the world thru one’s own set of filters. Walter Cronkite, one of the very best that ever lived mused on the subject and his musing became part of the texts taught in journalism school. A very good reporter does a very good job of keeping his/her feelings out of her writing, and a bad writer uses his/her own emotions as the medium.

        Reply
    3. PrecipitousDrop January 5, 2017

      Jim, if you can’t tell the difference between reporting and opinion, that’s your responsibility.
      Repeat Journalism 101.
      You have failed to advance.

      Reply
    4. FireBaron January 5, 2017

      Jim, Baker’s paper is wholly owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. This is the same company that owns Fox News. Don’t expect anything like journalistic integrity coming from any operation that is wholly sympathetic to the concept of a Teflon Donnie Presidency.

      Reply
      1. Paul Anthony January 5, 2017

        The same could be said of the Washington Post, owned by Jeff Bezos.
        Bias is bias, and neither side represents a higher moral standard.
        Journalism should not lean in either direction. Give us some credit – give us the facts and let us decide what is true. Don’t tell us what we should believe.

        Reply
        1. johninPCFL January 5, 2017

          The problem here is that opinion on one side is presented as fact, while fact on the other side is presented as less valid.

          Intelligence officials reports on Russian hacking are presented as opinion while Agent Orange’s opinion is presented as fact. Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate is questioned, while Agent Orange’s “PIs report to be issued, and they’ve found some amazing stuff” is presented as fact. Sometimes there are facts versus lies, and lies do not need to be aired in the same vein, nor in the same story, as facts.

          Reply
  4. Aaron_of_Portsmouth January 4, 2017

    Fortunately for those who take the time to think and reflect, the writers here excel where so many other media journalists fail miserably, by writing in a manner and style that show fresh perspectives, lighting a path to further inquiry.

    The charge of lying has been leveled exclusively by ninnyhammers of the conservative persuasion against Hillary Clinton, whereas Trump’s lies are treated as the gospel-truth.

    This article points to an affliction of reasoning capacity that for some unknown reason targets those of Right Wing convictions more than any others in America who have different tendencies. (The same type of affliction struck in earlier times in human history).

    Nevertheless, this sort of hypocrisy needs to be constantly challenged and called out for what it is—an assault on common sense and fair-play, and an attack on rational thinking.

    Just because someone is “a common person” and/or may lack a higher formal educational level doesn’t ipso facto mean that said person should submit to being incurious, or should yield to being churlish and a boor. If we take someone like Peter the disciple, that was a man who lacked any formal education yet was able to understand the import of the Message of Jesus, whereas Caiphas, one of the chief Jewish scholars of the time, lacked the ability to understand the hidden meanings behind what Jesus spoke.

    Peter as a result was of a higher rank as a human compared to the more “learned” Caiphas, because Peter had an insight and an innate ability to see beyond just the surface and more importantly, he had a good “heart”—a spiritual quality which Caiphas lacked, just as Trump and his many adoring fans lack. Caiphas’s pride of his knowledge and status in society was led to lead the plot that eventually would lead to Jesus’ martyrdom.

    The Ethiopian slave, Bilal, in 5th century Mecca, had a similar insight and degree of knowledge that instinctively allowed him to see the Truth of Muhammad’s Message, after which he was chosen personally by Muhammad to be the first Muezzin in the Islamic world—a very respected task then, and later and which served as a template for future Muslims selected to make the call to Prayer 5 times a day.

    Mirza Abu’l Fadl, the early renown Baha’i scholar, was a doubter of the authenticity of the Message of Baha’u’llah in 19the Century Iran; at the time, Mirza Abu’l Fadl was a prominent Muslim scholar of great renown, until a humble Babi(later Baha’i) blacksmith convinced this scholar by confounding the scholar with a question that so perplexed and embarrassed Mirza Abu’l Fadl that he immediately saw the limits of just book learning. Shortly thereafter, the Muslim scholar became a Baha’i and later would travel to America in the early 20th Century on behalf of Abdu’l Baha.

    Reply
    1. Theresejpickard January 5, 2017

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      Reply
  5. FireBaron January 5, 2017

    Please remember who Baker’s boss is. A guy named Rupert Murdoch. The WSJ was bought from the NYSE a few years back and is now owned by News Corporation (aka Fox).

    Reply
  6. yabbed January 5, 2017

    There are no Walter Cronkites for us today. We have Joy Ann Reid and that’s it.

    Reply

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